Sister Citizen, Brother Patriot: What It Means to be Black and American.

MHP (for those of you not cool enough to know, that would be Melissa Harris-Perry) has book out called Sister Citizen. In it she speaks about what is means to be black, a woman, and a citizen in the United States. She gives voice to a concern that black folk have had since Crispus Attucks was gunned down on a Boston Street 250 years ago. Being first slaves, then Jim-Crowed, the place of African-Americans in the nation has been either non-citizenship or some sort of fuzzy negative zone where “Yeah, you are a citizen but not a ‘real’ citizen. I mean … You can serve your country and drive tanks into other people’s countries day or night, but you can’t drive a nice car in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day inside the U.S. You can be the ultimate symbol of maternal love if you are providing that love in someone else’s home for someone else’s children, but if you are poor and choose stay in your own home to raise your own children, then you are welfare queen. You can vote, but you have to have your very specific freedom papers in order to be President.”

Before the election of Barack Obama, when asked to draw an American, people outside the U.S. would almost without fail, draw a man in a cowboy hat, and I seriously doubt that man in the cowboy hat was Woody Strode.

Inside the US, when asked to list great Americans, people of all colors would list Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Roosevelt (Presidents in general), maybe Edison or Bell (depending on what they were studying in school at the time), John Wayne during his life was quite popular on such lists, perhaps whoever just made Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. In more recent years, Martin Luther King has started to appear on these lists and I would suppose Obama, being the current president, would make the list.

Probably not on the list, Harriet Tubman, Ira Hayes, George Washington Carver, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Alice Paul, A. Phillip Randolph, Chief Joseph, etc.

To be American the Icon, one must first be white and preferably male. Anyone can be a citizen, but to be American, that symbol of all things bright, beautiful, and free, for a substantial number of citizens that requires whiteness. That is the narrative of America. White men writing the DOI and the Constitution, white men fighting the revolutionary war, white men taming the frontier, wagon trains of white folk settling the West. The Civil War was where brother fought brother and both were white. From Sgt. York to Audey Murphy, even World Wars were White American victories.

Doesn’t take any leap of logic to see why the birthers won’t go away. The President (the ultimate symbol of America to the world) can’t be American, he simply can’t, not if he’s black.

Which is all ironic in light of the fact that the first to fall for this county’s independence was Crispus Attucks, a man of both African and Native descent. And even back then, the white citizens of Boston would not describe Attucks as a black man, or a negro, but of “mixed race.” Sound familiar?

So what does it mean to be both black and American? Historically it has meant this.

Prior to Desegregation, the US Navy policy with regard to black sailors was “Mess Only.” December 7, 1941, Dorie Miller was a cook aboard the USS West Virgina.

On 7 December 1941, Miller awoke at 0600. After serving breakfast mess, he was collecting laundry when the first of nine torpedoes to hit West Virginia was launched at 0757 by Lt. Comdr. Shigeharu Murata of the Japanese carrier Akagi.[2] Miller headed for his battle station, an antiaircraft battery magazine amidship, only to discover that torpedo damage had destroyed it.

He went instead to “Times Square”, a central spot where the fore to aft and port to starboard passageways crossed, and reported himself available for other duty.[2] Miller was spotted by Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, the ship’s communications officer, who ordered the powerfully built sailor to accompany him to the bridge to assist with moving the ship’s Captain Mervyn Bennion, who had a gaping wound in his abdomen where he had apparently been hit by shrapnel. Miller and another sailor lifted the skipper and, unable to remove him from the bridge, carried him from an exposed position on the damaged bridge to a sheltered spot behind the conning tower.[5] The Captain refused to leave his post and questioned his officers about the condition of the ship, giving various orders. The Captain remained on the bridge until his death.

White ordered Miller to help him and Ensign Victor Delano load the unmanned #1 and #2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns aft of the conning tower.[6] Miller wasn’t familiar with the machine gun, but White and Delano told him what to do. Miller had served both men as a room steward and knew them well. Delano expected Miller to feed ammunition to one gun, but his attention was diverted, and when he looked again Miller was firing one of the guns. White had loaded ammo into both guns and assigned Miller the starboard gun.[2]

Miller said later “I think I got one” and has been variously credited with shooting down from one to six [2] Japanese planes that day,[7][8] although official Navy records do not credit anyone on board the Virginia with shooting down any aircraft that day.[6] Only the nearby Maryland was credited with shooting down a Japanese plane in their area.

Miller fired the gun until he ran out of ammo, when he was ordered by Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts along with Lt. White and Chief Signalman A.A. Siewart to help Miller carry the Captain up to the navigation bridge out of the thick oily smoke generated by the many fires on and around the ship. Bennion was only partially conscious at this point and died soon after. Japanese aircraft eventually dropped two armor-piercing bombs through the deck of the battleship and launched five 18 in (460 mm) aircraft torpedoes into her port side. When the attack finally lessened, Lieutenant Frederic H. White ordered Miller to help move injured sailors through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”

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And what happened to Miller after his display of heroism? He was sent back to the mess.

Seven decades later and the birthers have been trying to send Barack Obama back the mess for four years now.

What does it take to make an African American a “real” American? Well the good news is, we are getting closer to that answer; the bad news is, we aren’t there yet.


One response to “Sister Citizen, Brother Patriot: What It Means to be Black and American.

  1. Jesus, Delthea, that’s effing brill.


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